In On the Job Training

Lessons learned from a life in music.
(The first in a series of posts.)  


When setting out on any new endeavor, a little help from an experienced hand can make a big difference. In the beginning, the smallest kindness from a friendly pro might keep the creative fire lit for another day.

More than once, I benefitted from such help as I began my music career. I was fortunate to encounter several people generous with their knowledge and advice, some who even offered modest free-lance employment at a time when a hundred bucks for music copy work meant Cindy and I could pay the monthly rent.

One of those people was Kurt Kaiser.

Before I ever met Kurt, he loomed large to me. My mother was a Kurt Kaiser fan. On Sunday mornings, Kurt’s piano recordings accompanied our family’s preparations for church. As a high school sophomore, I played drums for a citywide concert of the hot new youth musical, TELL IT LIKE IT IS, written by Ralph Carmichael and Kurt Kaiser. From that musical came the hit song, “Pass It On,” sung by every youth group that ever gathered around a campfire in the 1970s.

Four years later, I met Kurt in the college Sunday school class at Seventh & James Baptist Church. That morning he sat at the piano and taught us a song he had just written. The song was “Oh, How He Loves You and Me.”

A couple years after that, I was doing free-lance editing for Word Music. Kurt needed somebody to do last minute music copy work and occasionally schlepp the copies to the studio for the next day’s work. I was the man for the job. The antiquated process of copying music by hand was tedious work. But it paid the bills, and I learned about scoring by copying the work of more experienced writers.

 Lesson #1: Even the smallest job is an opportunity to learn.

Then, in 1979, Kurt did one of the kindest, most generous things anybody has ever done for me. On a frigid Saturday in February, he spent several hours at 1st Baptist Church Waco, accompanying my mother singing her favorite hymns. From then on, I knew two things: I would forever be Mom’s favorite, and I would always be in Kurt Kaiser’s debt.

In 2009, on the 40th anniversary of its release, I created a new arrangement of “Pass It On” for Shawnee Press. (Hal Leonard # 35027028) Of all Kurt’s songs from a lifetime of creating music, he is best known for two: “Oh How He Loves You and Me” and “Pass It On.” Are those Kurt’s favorites? Maybe. Maybe not. But like the rest us, Kurt sent his musical babies out into the world to make their own way. Some found their way better than others.

 Lesson #2: None of us gets to choose which of our songs the public will like.
Not you.  Not me.  Not Kurt Kaiser.

I find it sweetly appropriate that “Pass It On” is still so well known because its message reflects Kurt so well. He has always “passed it on,” making himself available to young people hungry to know about the world of music. (And Kurt’s musical world is huge.) In 1977, Kurt could have considered me his competition, and withheld his knowledge from a young arranger/songwriter. Instead, he chose to “pass it on.”

            Kurt will turn 80 years old this year. He still makes music. He just released a new collection of hymn recordings, titled “Legacy.” When asked to contribute a quote for the CD release party, I offered this: “When I grow up, I want to be like Kurt Kaiser.”

 Lesson #3: Be generous with your time and talents.
We all have something worth passing on.


Showing 12 comments
  • Verlie Stevens

    Thank you, Robert. You have a marvelous way with words and story telling, and some darn good points to make. I offer appreciation for this, and for your sharing of your insights and gleanings at the Composer’s Symposium. I hope to have future contacts with you.

    • rsterling

      Thanks, Verlie!

  • Vicki Bedford

    Robert, the blog is good. You are a gifted “words” man (and your music’s not bad, either!), but the picture at the top fleshes it out beautifully. How sweet was that?!

    Having been in one of Kurt Kaiser’s classes at Glorieta years ago, I also saw that he is a kind, gracious, talented gentleman with a heart for God the size of Texas.

    Thanks for your investment and willingness to “pass it on” to others of us who aspire to be Kurt Kaiser (Kurtsey K?) someday, as well. 🙂


    • rsterling

      Yep – Kurt is the real deal. Good to hear from you, vb.

  • Ed Rush

    Glad to see you blogging more often. I look forward to all the blogs in this series. I am a fan of Kurt Kaiser as well, though I have never met him personally. Thanks for your insight in posting these lessons learned.

    • rsterling

      I am doing my best to blog a little more often – and with content that will be helpful to other writers. As for Kurt – he’s a great guy. You’d like him.

  • Michael Woolley

    2 of my favorites……Robert Sterling and Kurt Kaiser

    • rsterling

      Thanks, Mike!

  • Saralu Lunn

    Thank you for your tribute to Kurt Kaiser. He and Pat probably influenced me more than any couple during my college years . Ed and I had the privilege of spending a week end in Salado this past year at a BRH reunion. It was the most amazing time to be able to hear him reflect and expound about his life. To hear his heart and what he has cherished in life. To witness a life well lived and a marriage that is so sweet to watch even in this season of their lives. They have been our role models in life. They are the real thing.

    • rsterling

      Great to hear from you, Saralu.

  • Suzi

    This photo of Kurt and your Mom – priceless!

    • rsterling

      Isn’t it? Mom was a trip. But then you knew that, Suz. Hi to the Big Swede.

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